Saving cultural landscape; a race against time

Heritage: Bhutan’s rapid urbanisation and development activities such as roads and institutional structures have come at a cost. They are adversely impacting, in numerous ways, the cultural landscape, a vital component of Bhutanese history.

A cultural landscape is generally defined as “a geographic area, including both cultural, natural resources and the wildlife or domestic animals therein, associated with a historic event, activity, or person or exhibiting other cultural or aesthetic values.”

Article 4 of the Constitution states that the state shall endeavour to preserve, protect and promote the cultural heritage of the country including monuments, places and objects of artistic or historic interest, dzongs, lhakhangs, goendeys, ten-sum, nyes, and language, among others.

Home and cultural affairs secretary Sonam Topgay said despite the preservation of culture being enshrined in the Constitution and the high recognition it is given there are many issues related to sustenance of cultural landscape.

“Drastic socio-economic development has posed tremendous pressure to the preservation of heritage sites and sustenance of cultural landscapes,” he said.

These developments, he said, in the long term would result in deterioration of the communities.

“The protection of heritage sites and sustenance of cultural landscape is a critical factor as well as holistic indicator in achieving Gross National Happiness to ensure equitable, balanced development and village-centric development,” the secretary said.

Processes to preserve the cultural landscape would be successful only if economic needs of an individual are harmoniously balanced with the spiritual, emotional and cultural wellbeing of the society.

The protection of the cultural sites and the sustenance of the cultural landscape requires people-centred management frameworks developed with proper consultations.

He said that cultural landscape is an asset to the Himalayan region and Bhutan in particular.

“The region’s cultural landscape together with its traditional ways of living are today increasingly vulnerable due to the changes brought on by urbanisation and lack of awareness of their significance,” he said.

However, the awareness on cultural landscape is limited among the people and even lawmakers.

“As the concept of cultural landscape is new to Bhutan, an essential goal today is to increase awareness of this important concept among those who are going to deliberate the very first Heritage Sites Bill,” UNESCO’s director of division of heritage and world heritage, Dr Mechtild Rossler, said.

The home ministry is expected to table the bill in the Parliament.

The culture department launched a two-year UNESCO and Japan Funds-in-Trust for South Asian Cultural Landscape initiatives worth USD 40,000 yesterday.

Home ministry officials said that such funds are crucial for countries like Bhutan working to sustain its cultural landscape.

The programme is to disseminate the concept of cultural landscapes and its safeguarding among different stakeholders in the country who need to play an important role in the safeguarding of cultural landscapes.

The programme offers preliminary collaboration platform among main cultural landscape stakeholders, enhancing the local technical teams’ understanding of the management of cultural landscapes, and raising awareness around the concept.

The culture department will host workshops and work on documents with international experts through this programme, and prepare documents to include cultural landscapes on the country’s national tentative list.

Bhutan ratified the World Heritage Convention in 2001 and began working on a heritage sites bill only in 2011.

Tshering Palden

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